Daily Telegraph, Friday 2 December 2016
One of the worst things that can happen to a child is being sexually abused by a trusted adult. Football is at the heart of the latest historical allegations, with police forces up and down the country revealing they have been inundated with claims stretching back decades.
The scandal is already being described as ‘bigger than Savile’, something that may turn out to be true in pure numbers of victims and perpetrators. A joint report on Jimmy Savile by the NSPCC and Metropolitan Police identified 450 victims, including 328 under-age children. In the last week alone, police investigating claims involving football clubs say they have received allegations about attacks on 350 people - almost all of them men who say they were assaulted as children or teenagers.
We don’t know the final number yet, but it’s becoming clear that boys were abused by a whole series of perpetrators at different levels of the game, from professional clubs to amateur teams. Greater Manchester police, which is one of 17 forces now involved in the investigation, say they have identified 10 suspects after being contacted by 35 victims.
Some former football players have waived their anonymity to talk openly about rapes and sexual assaults that happened on a weekly, and in some cases daily, basis. Their accounts are harrowing and some men have broken down in tears. Many have praised the bravery of the former player, Andy Woodward, whose description of being abused encouraged others to come forward.
It is a very good thing that the taboo on men talking about rape and sexual abuse is finally being broken. For too long, victims stayed silent because they couldn’t face explaining what happened to them – something that applies equally to women and girls, of course. At the same time, comparisons with Savile are uncomfortable to listen to and risk setting up an undignified competition between victims, all of whom are equally deserving of sympathy.
There are similarities between the two scandals, not least the way in which the allegations have multiplied over a short period. Within days of an ITV documentary broadcast in 2012, revealing claims against Savile by several women, the number of his victims had risen into the hundreds. Something similar has happened since Woodward came forward and many people are genuinely shocked (as they should be) by the scale of what is being uncovered.
There is no doubt that sexual abuse ruins lives. Former footballers have talked eloquently about an inability to trust, substance abuse and other lifelong consequences. But child sexual abuse is a painful enough subject without ranking it in terms of numbers and outcomes - as if there is a ghoulish desire for one to be worse than another. It must be hard for Savile’s victims to hear casual claims that this latest scandal is worse than their own.
There is another difference which may be hard for his victims (and women raped by less famous men) to hear. As soon as Savile’s crimes were revealed, people rushed to his defence. They complained that a much-loved entertainer and charity campaigner was being maligned after death, when he was no longer around to clear his name.
They accused his victims of lying, claiming they were publicity-seekers who had made up stories to get attention. Men from the 1960s and 70s entertainment industry, including a couple who are now serving prison sentences, accused under-age girls of ‘throwing themselves’ at DJs and pop stars.
Every tiresome rape myth was recycled, from blaming the victim to outright disbelief. It is easy to forget, now that Savile is known as a serial sexual predator, that some people were so reluctant to let go of their perceptions of him that they were prepared to traduce his victims.
What we are seeing now is very different. As far as I know, no one has accused the former players who have spoken publicly of lying, or having shady motives. Interviewers have behaved with sympathy, understanding and care not to re-traumatise men who have been through horrific experiences.
This is as is should be. All victims of rape and sexual assault should be treated the same, regardless of whether they are men or women; part of a sweeping historic scandal or an individual attack. I really hope it sets a precedent for the next time something like this erupts. We should never forget that the handful of victims who were brave enough to go to the police during Savile’s lifetime were not believed.
This really is too serious a subject for comparisons. Next time you hear someone claiming that the scandal around football clubs is ‘bigger than Savile’, please remember that the last thing we want is a contest in suffering.